I can't eat a Joe's Sandwich Bar sandwich in public. I'm sure there are plenty of people who can convey one from their hand to their mouth without it raining chipotle pumpkin and Japanese slaw. I am not one of those people. And yet I continue to dance with death (or at least the death of clean, chipotle-free clothes) because the sandwiches at Joe's are very, very good. The food-going-everywhere issue is less a slur on their construction than a reflection on how many fine and tasty things they manage to press between two slices of Iggy's sourdough.
So it was with delight that I received the news that the people behind Joe's and its parent eatery, Verd, and the talents at Alfie's Kitchen had decided to step things up a notch and open a restaurant where I could enjoy all of these things with Iggy's bread and knives and forks, napkins and tables. Paperbark is all about the plants and it is inventive in their celebration. Kicking off with Iggy's bread, (one of the most excellent plant-based foods found in the city of Sydney), teamed with a fine, fresh, green olive oil from the Southern Tablelands, gets things off to a savvy start.
Chef Joey Astorga knows his way around a snack, and the first few things on his menu are among the best. He tops semolina and saltbush crackers with crisp saltbush leaves. He threads slivers of portobello mushroom onto eucalyptus twigs and grills them to make juicy skewers to swipe through a macadamia cream. He squirts potato batter into hot oil to make golden squiggles he then scatters with salt and freeze-dried vinegar, and offers as potato churros. These are very good things.
He likes to play with nomenclature, which works some times better than others. There's no resisting "potato churros", but the words "hazelnut pâté" on the menu conjure an expectation of something lighter and smoother than the dense nut-nugget on the plate. There again, it sits comfortably with the sheets of roasted and raw beetroot and pleasantly salty rhubarb laid over it. (And hey, "dense nut-nugget" is definitely niche marketing.)
A word on the room: I like it. The horticultural references are numerous, and include a low, backlit planter running along one wall behind a banquette, which softens the room's sharper, boxier edges, and a striking paperbark sculpture that unspools across the wall above it in an angular ribbon of timber origami. (More literal-minded nature fans will be pleased to see there are actual melaleuca trees growing out the front on Phillip Street, too.) Beautiful ceramics and nice linens don't hurt one bit.
Given that plant-focused restaurants are all but required by law to offer an eggplant main course, I feel duty-bound to order Paperbark's contribution to the genre: lobes of coal-roasted and nicely giving eggplant laid over potato mash, textured with a heap of roasted Puy lentils, all sharpened up with the twang of Davidson's plum.
Do high-end plant eateries have something against salad leaves? They don't feature here, and I don't think I've seen them at Yellow, either. If you'd like greens, meanwhile, at Paperbark you'll take them in the form of char-grilled celtuce and pak choy, scattered with karkalla and laid over puffed black rice with a cream flavoured with lemon aspen.
I'd like to nominate miso making its way into desserts in Australia as one of my favourite recent developments in our cuisine, right up there with kimchi now being considered an essential complement to a cheese toastie. At Paperbark, the gentle funk of miso caramel gives depth to an otherwise poptastic arrangement of banana, peanut and chocolate covered in crunchy frozen honeycomb. Last winter's truffles, meanwhile, bring both earth and perfume to ice-cream made with coconut cream. The absence of dairy is far from a liability; the ice-cream's smoothness and snap marry beautifully with the texture of the pear on the plate.
Thoughtful, inventive and fresh, but not without its moments of finger-lickin' tastiness, the food at Paperbark is lots of fun. The friendly staff push the chef's menu (and at dinner on Fridays and Saturdays it's the only menu offered), but I prefer to think of the food as the high-minded drinking kind, and like the idea of hitting those excellent snacks over a bottle or two.
There's lots going on down the herbal end of the flavour spectrum, which works nicely with a list focused on winemakers who like to march to the beat of their own drum (Good Intentions, Jauma, Manon and Momento Mori among them). The all-Australian wine line-up is complemented by cocktails showcasing local distillers and native flavours, such as eucalyptus, lemon myrtle, finger lime and wattleseed, as well as superb ales from Marrickville's Wildflower brewery.
I think we've moved well beyond the "good for a vegan place" conversation in Sydney now. This is simply good food that needs no qualifiers, full stop. Get into it.